Black Mass* * * *
by Margaret Chrystall
There are a few stretches of the imagination you have to make if you are going to get stuck in to the 1970s South Boston gangster epic lovingly played out by director Scott Cooper. Even fans of Johnny Depp’s regular on-screen transformations – see Captain Jack Sparrow to Willy Wonka - will hardly recognise him at first – and, let’s be honest, he looks a bit odd. But it’s possibly quicker to accept Depp as Jimmy Whitey Bulger, the notorious violent “Southie” kingpin, than that Benedict Cumberbatch is Bulger’s brother Billy, who became a powerful Massachussetts state senator.
But both actors are at the top of their game for a story where the sheer weight of the incident and detail along the way would sink a lesser film.
Bulger’s rise is ironically boosted by the FBI’s own informant scheme which his former schoolmate John Connolly – now working for the FBI - brings into play when he realises both of them could benefit from trading information. But Jimmy’s code means at first he’s not interested … till one of his team is brutally murdered by rival Italian family the Angiulos.
It’s hard to believe now that the ultimate con was played for so long on the FBI who effectively helped Bulger’s gang become all-powerful and forge links providing weapons to the IRA.
But Depp adds enough menace to make Bulger believable as a psychopathic killer and, in a scene where unwisely Connolly has asked the criminal round for a meal, he goads a fellow guest and FBI man into revealing a secret family recipe, before coldly telling him its evidence he can’t be trusted.
Though Depp is the towering presence - and so much is happening to so many in the effectively parallel stories inside both Winter Hill Gang and the FBI - there’s not enough time for the good supporting cast to make much of a mark, including Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss Charlie McGuire, W Earl Brown as Winter Hill Gang killer James Martorano.
But Joel Edgerton’s transformation of smart FBI agent John Connolly into cocky, double game playing golden boy is a little jewel that the heart of the movie turns on.
Already being called an Irish-American Goodfellas, Black Mass – if the gangster genre bores you – is possibly just yet another gangster movie. But it’s worth watching Johnny Depp get serious, swapping panto for psycho. And take serious while you can – the maverick’s next outings include the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland and a return as Captain Jack Sparrow…
What happens: The film opens with evidence from the colleagues of Jimmy Whitey Bulger – only captured in 2011 – some of whom discover a long way into their reign over South Boston crime that their harsh, violent boss has been an FBI informant for years, run by his Southie school-pal, agent John Connolly who effectively protects Jimmy’s rise in exchange for tiny snippets of information – but crucial evidence to nail and close down Jimmy’s Italian mafia rivals, the Angiulo family. But two family tragedies tip Jimmy into riskier moves – just as a hardline prosecutor queries the cosy FBI relationship.
Best quote: So many … but after doting dad, Jimmy has some chilling advice for his son Douglas who got in trouble for retaliating against a school bully: “I get it dad, punch him when no-one’s looking.”
Who for: Anyone with a fascination for American gangster history, students of America’s relationship with organised crime, those who can’t resist Johnny Depp and anyone who is curious to know what Scott Cooper did after Out Of The Furnace.
Quick review: Johnny Depp is already one of those being tipped early as a best actor Oscar contender for his chilling performance as a real-life Boston gangster who informed for the FBI while building his crime empire.
The film is back for a run at Eden Court Cinema from Friday, November 27. Here's a taster: